Portugal. The Man have proven to be one of the most creative and prolific rock bands of our generation. They have released five exceptional albums in the past five years, and after conquering all they could as an independent band, the group have signed to Atlantic Records. The guys that make up Portugal. The Man: John Baldwin Gourley, Zachary Scott Carothers, Jason Sechrist, and Ryan Neighbors are bringing their eclectic influences and stellar songwriting to the next level, and Exploding In Sound couldn't be more excited for whats to come. In the midst of preparing for tour and working on their next album, Carothers was gracious enough to answer some questions about recording, joining the "majors," relaxing, and... his grandparents...
EIS: How’s the new recording going?
ZC: It’s going pretty well. Right now everybody’s back in Portland. John was in New York for a couple of weeks with our producer, they were getting stuff ready and we set up a makeshift studio down in our basement, which was pretty fun. They were sending tracks to us and then we’d fill in our parts and then send them back, which is kind of a weird way to do things. We’ve never really done it like that before, but it was a lot of fun.
EIS: Didn’t John end up recording American Ghetto primarily alone with Anthony Saffery handling the production?
ZC: Yeah, he was doing that. It was the same kind of thing actually, but he was mostly just using samples and stuff like that, so we didn’t track too much to send back. We kinda filled in some of our stuff, but this is the first time we’ve done it from home with everybody together in our basement, getting everything ready for when we go to the studio to finish up the album.
EIS: It’s funny after all this time, now that you’ve signed with a major record label, you’re recording in the basement…
ZC: Well we went to a really really nice studio outside of El Paso for a few weeks, John did some stuff in New York, and we’re gonna end up going into another studio to finish it up. Most of the stuff we’re doing down here won’t be kept, we’re just getting our parts set, ideas, and things like that. I imagine we’re not keeping a whole bunch of this stuff because we don’t have very good microphones, and I’m not a recording engineer [laughs]. I’m just learning Pro Tools and it’s fun, it’s something I’ve wanted to learn, so we can at least get our ideas down in the basement. We have it set up pretty nice right now, our buddy Edgar came and let us borrow some stuff… probably should have shown us how to work everything, but it’s pretty fun.
EIS: Do you feel any difference writing and recording this album because it’s your major label debut, or is it the same process as usual?
ZC: Same process, but we definitely feel more pressure since we want everybody to be happy with it. We’re really taking our time with this one, which we’ve never done before. We’re recording for a little bit, taking time off and going out doing tours and just listening to it, getting better ideas and making better parts. We’re definitely putting a lot more thought into this than we ever have before. I think it will be good for us. We just want to make the best record we can right now. There’s a lot more pressure and a lot more thought.
EIS: I finally was able to catch you guys live for the first time at the Governor’s Island show in New York.
ZC: Oh yeah! That was fun, such a beautiful place to have a show. It was kind of crazy for us to fly out to New York for a day. We were there for maybe 30 hours. It was a busy 30 hours, but it was fun, we got to see friends and actually got to hang out in New York! We can’t really do that on tour because we have our van and trailer and there’s nowhere to park, or we’re sketched out about it because a lot of our friends don’t live in the best part of town. A couple of us usually get to stay, and the rest get Jersey duty, and go out to Jersey by the airport, get a hotel, and don’t get to have any fun. This was fun though because we didn’t have all our gear so we could just pile our stuff into our friends apartment and go out.
EIS: I noticed during the set you were playing lots of “re-imagined” and “reconstructed” versions of your songs. Is this a common occurrence for a live Portugal. The Man concert?
ZC: We like to switch up our songs a lot. It’s for many different reasons, sometimes we get tired of playing it the same old way so we do a lot of improv on stage, and a lot of jamming. As musicians, you don’t really get any better playing the same thing every night, so it’s the only way we can keep up on our practice. We try to make it different every tour so that if you’re playing the same songs for people who come out to shows regularly, or fans who come to every tour, they get something a little different.
EIS: That’s definitely awesome.
ZC: We write everything in the studio, and we don’t really do it in the practice setting. Sometimes we’ll write a song and then go to play it live, and it just feels weird. Even though we’re all playing our parts and doing it well… it just doesn’t have the right energy or something like that, so we try to rewrite the song and make it different for our live shows. Most people like it and are excited about it and some people say “why didn’t you play the album version?” Well… you can hear that anytime, this is something a little different.
EIS: Yeah, I personally think it’s great. It’s something that’s so commonly done among the “jam band” scene that doesn’t generally cross over to much into “alternative" rock. You guys are about to head over to Europe for the rest of summer, do you notice a big difference touring overseas as opposed to in the States?
ZC: We’re heading over Sunday! For sure there’s a lot of differences. The people are different over there in general. The music fans are a lot more open to different kinds of music; there’s not as many “cliques”. Over here you can stereotype and see someone on the street and say “I bet that guy listens to this band”. You can kinda tell the indie fans, the hip hop fans, the classic rock fans. You can tell more so in America. Over there it’s a lot different, we have a really wide range of people coming out. We’ll have twelve year old kids at our shows to grandparents that heard a song on the radio and thought, “oh, I like this” and they don’t really care if it fits into any specific genre. if they hear a band and like it, then they like it. They’re just huge music fans, Germany especially, which was the first place we went over there and it’s kind of our home-base with Austria. They’re just crazy music fans, they buy a lot of records for not being very big, and they have some of the biggest and craziest music festivals in the world.
They treat you really well too, that’s another difference. As a smaller band, when we first started going over there, we were really excited. When you pull up to a venue here in the United States, you go into the backroom and we get a case of Pabst and chips and salsa, but over there they’re so hospitable to bands. The promoters have all sorts of food and beer laid out in the backroom, and they’re all really excited about it. It’s fun because each different town has it’s own thing, everything is local from the beer that’s brewed in their hometown, and there’s always a staple dish of that area that’s famous in those parts that was created there most of the time. They’re overly excited about it like, “hey you’ve got to try this, it’s from our town!” They’re very patriotic and proud of where they live, and they treat artists unbelievably well.
EIS: Speaking of treating artists unbelievably well… on your past couple of tours you’ve released free downloadable compilations including several songs from each of your opening acts which is really cool of you guys to help promote your supporting bands.
ZC: 9 times out of 10, anybody we bring out we really like and really respect. Sometimes you do favors… a band will take us out and in return we take out a band from their label or management company, but even then we always make sure that we like it. We really represent the whole brotherhood vibe that you get on tour. A lot of times when someone is there just for the headlining band and they’re complaining through the opening bands, you’ve got to remember in most cases all the bands have become pretty good friends because you spend every day together and get to know people real well in a short amount of time. We really like the whole family vibe, so when we do a tour we want it to be very known that “this is our whole show, we brought these bands out because we like them, and we want to show everyone else why we like them. Our fans are pretty respectful, and nobody really gets heckled at our shows, so it’s cool. We like it to be known that we’re proud of who we take out.
EIS: Going back to the records, with each album there’s a huge progression in your music, while always maintaining the Portugal. The Man sound. Is it a conscious decision on your part to keep things shifting in different directions?
ZC: Yeah, it definitely is. For one, we just always want to make better songs, but we do always want to make something different. We like a lot of types of music between all the members of the band and our crew. Since we listen to so much different music, we want to incorporate everything. It started out with us not knowing what kind of band we wanted to be, and we wanted to draw influence from all different places, a lot of it not even music necessarily, more just sounds, feelings, and growing up. We always wanted to write good, semi-accessible, rock ‘n’ roll songs and started with how to do it better. Our song writing changes how it goes every record, but we’ve found our thing and have started to write a little different. We’re writing around actual chord progressions, instead of just around riffs and jamming… we’re actually putting more thought into the melody.
EIS: As far as the writing sessions for American Ghetto went, despite the fact that it’s built on electronic drums and synths, the album still feels very natural and organic because of the songwriting.
ZC: Yeah, that was mostly John. We didn’t do a whole terrible lot on that record. We had a couple of weeks off and John felt like going out there [to Boston] and seeing what he could do on his own. He would send us tracks and ask for input, but he just wanted to see what would happen if he did something like that.
EIS: While we’re discussing John, how does the band feel about the long open letters [for example] he has become known to write to the audience? Those letters have got to be one of the most honest and sincere things I’ve ever seen a band share.
ZC: We’re all totally cool with it, we love that kind of stuff. John really likes doing that and the blogs, and we all have our different roles in the band. I like to write letters now and then, but John’s pretty good at it so he’s taken that role, and I’m more of the picture guy. I take all the photos for the band when we go on tour. I take all the pictures for the Facebook, Myspace, and website, that’s how I get to connect with the fans, as well as talking to people face to face at shows. I probably hang out the most, go out in the crowd, hang at the bar and meet everybody.
EIS: Well we know the fans appreciate that!
ZC: Yeah, it’s fun! We are very fortunate for our fans, without them we couldn’t do any of this. There are so many different mediums to connect with people these days online, so we make sure to keep people updated in as many ways as we can. We don’t want to be annoying… we have our mailing list and everything we have is kinda “if you want information, you can definitely find it”. You can find a lot of updates about us through Twitter, Facebook, our website, but we don’t want to force it on anybody with mass mailings. We don’t want to be annoying, but if you want to be annoyed…
EIS: [laughs] Yeah, the option is there. In the past couple of years you guys have played just about every major music festival in the country. Do you prefer to play the enormous festivals, or would you rather be playing club shows?
ZC: You know… we’ve talked about this a lot, and we can’t really decide. They’re both really awesome, and they’re both completely different. The festivals are awesome because it’s just a big party and you can feel the love of music in the air when you walk around the grounds. To be involved in something like that is absolutely amazing. You get to play with a lot of really cool bands and the vibe is just so awesome. It’s like a buffet, or a giant sampler platter, but it’s also good to play club shows where it feels like it’s your party and the people are coming there to see you. Honestly, we can’t decide which is more fun.
EIS: Are there any festivals you guys haven’t played yet that you’re looking forward to hitting in the future?
ZC: Bumbershoot would be pretty cool, that’s kinda the last one that we’d all be really excited to play, as well as some of the local and smaller festivals. All of them are really cool in their own way. Bonnaroo was amazing and will always have a place in our hearts because it was the first major open air festival that we got to do. That day just went so perfectly, and it was such an amazing experience… same with Coachella, and Sasquatch… being up in the gorge in Washington… they are just beautiful beautiful places. We’re excited to play the Frequency Festival over in Europe this year, it’s a really big, really good one. In Europe, almost every town has its own little festival with 2,000 or 3,000 people. They’re always in really cool locations like an old castle, fort, or a rock quarry in the mountains [laughs]. We played those last summer, and we’re going back over to play a lot of those again next week. It’s kind of between playing a club show and a big festival because there are a lot more people than would normally be at our shows, obviously, but its still fairly small and tight knit. You can still walk around and talk to everybody, it’s a lot of fun.
EIS: Europe certainly knows how to throw a festival. Seeing as you guys have slowed down your pace… well, at least slow for Portugal. The Man standards… is it nice to have a little “breathing room” so to speak with the new record?
ZC: It definitely is! It’s nice to take our time on it, it’s nice to take some time off. We’re not really “off,” we’re still working everyday but we’re at our own place. We just got a house in February. We rented a house in Portland, we’d been homeless the entire career of the band except when one or two of us have a girlfriend we can live with for a little bit. We’ve been sleeping on couches since we’ve been gone so much, or crashing in garages and basements, Fight Club style. We finally invested in a home for us, and we’re all living together with our tour manager and we actually get to spend a couple of weeks at home in the summer in Portland which hasn’t happened in years. The summer in Portland is beautiful, and it’s been really nice to take a break, since we know it’s the calm before the storm. We know once this album is out, the next year is going to be crazy. We’re jumping back up again and we’re gonna be touring constantly, pretty much all year is the plan, but we like that. We like to work hard, but we are appreciating the downtime. My girlfriend is mad as hell since I never get to see her, so it’s been nice to see her [laughs].
EIS: Always good to keep the girlfriend happy [laughs].
ZC: [laughs] Yeah, pretty much impossible, but hey… you gotta try.
EIS: You mentioned earlier that you were really interested in the artwork aspect of things, and your recent album’s packing has been really incredible [exhibit A], especially The Satanic Satanist, are you planning something special again for the next release?
ZC: For sure, we’re always going to try and step it up, and we’re really big into that for a lot of reasons. There’s obviously the business aspect to it… not many people are buying CDs anymore, I don’t buy a lot of CDs anymore, if I do I buy them off of iTunes because I feel I have to support artists… but if a band comes out with really cool and interesting packaging, that’s what makes me want to go out and buy the physical copy and the vinyl. The artwork can be whole other experience, and it bums me out when bands don’t take that into consideration. There’s so much you can do with that kind of stuff, especially bigger bands that have giant budgets like Justin Timberlake [laughs]. I love Justin Timberlake, don’t get me wrong, but when I see that guy and he just has snapshots of him smashing a disco ball, you know that guy probably has a $300,000 art budget and he could do something craaazy! I hope to be able to do that someday, we don’t have any budget. Until now, we’ve done all the records ourselves, putting up all the money for everything and we always put a lot of thought into the packaging. We think it’s a cool thing and something extra that we can do. We’ve got some ideas for the record that are pretty cool, we haven’t decided on one thing yet, but it’ll be pretty nifty I imagine.
EIS: Very cool. Do you feel like you were snubbed by the Grammys for The Satanic Satanist not being nominated for "Best Packaging"?
ZC: [laughs] Well… I don’t really think that we were on their radar yet… we didn’t submit ourselves because we didn’t know you had to do that. Yeah, that would have been awesome, but I understand... we’re a tiny band and if we had been nominated everyone would have said, “who?” I think it was close to that, the packaging for “Satanist” was awesome and we put a lot of time into it and a lot of thought, so hopefully some day we can do that. That’s a big thing to add to our list, but I don’t think we’re gonna win a Grammy anytime soon.
EIS: Well, the Grammys are kind of convoluted and watered down at this point anyway…
ZC: [laughs] Yeah, our grandparents would be really pumped though. My grandparents are hilarious… they try to be real cool and try to follow the band and talk to me about all that stuff, and… they just have no clue about pop culture at all. They bring up things to me like they know what they’re talking about… they were talking to us about Austin City Limits, which we’re playing this year, saying “I’ve seen the show, I heard that’s a big deal. That’s really cool!” and I said, “yeah, it’s awesome, we get to share a stage with the Eagles,” and my grandparents just said “who?” I thought “really? You guys have never heard of the Eagles?” [laughs] That’s crazy!
EIS: Well at least your grandparents are probably the only ones in town who are bigger fans of Portugal. The Man than they are the Eagles.
ZC: [laughs] Yeah, it’s nuts. I couldn’t believe it. I started singing her “Hotel California,” and she said “oh it sounds familiar”. I can’t make it two hours around town without hearing that song somewhere.
EIS: [laughs] Hey, as long as they’re busy listening to your music, seems pretty cool to me…
ZC: Yeah, they keep up and play their part. It’s pretty funny. That’s one thing that’s cool about signing to Atlantic… our family members are all really pumped about us, it’s proof to them that we’re doing something good, working hard, and has put us on another respect level which was cool. Our immediate family members have always been supportive, but now our aunts and uncles are really excited which is pretty cool.
EIS: You guys released music videos for “Do You” and “The Sun” from The Satanic Satanist, are you planning on making any for American Ghetto?
ZC: We have, we made a couple for American Ghetto and we’re going to do a couple more for “The Satanist”. We’ve done two that haven’t been released yet, one is finishing up and the other is coming out in a month or so. They’re almost done… they’re pretty cool and pretty crazy. We like that, it’s just another medium we can hit people with. I think videos are very important, and they’re awesome that we have them. They make a fan out of me all the time, if I hear a band that I normally listen to and I see an awesome video I’ll go out and buy the record, whether I end up liking it or not. I really respect that art. There are bands who I don’t even like their music, but when they put a video out, I’m one of the first people to check it out.
EIS: Well Zach, I know you’re a busy man, and I don’t want to take too much of your time, but I really appreciate you doing the interview. Thanks so much and have a great time on tour!